Ali Noorani’s passion for refugees, and his gift for building coalitions around migrant justice causes, has made him a leader in the U.S. immigration reform movement and a must-have on news outlets ranging from PBS Newshour and Fox News to The New York Times and USA Today.
Noorani, who steps down this spring as president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum after 14 years on the job, said his concern for immigrants developed while previously working for community health centers in some of Boston’s biggest immigrant and ethnic neighborhoods.
“Walking from one neighborhood to the next was like walking around the world. I might start in Haitian and African American communities and pass through Central American and old-school Irish neighborhoods, then end up in a vibrant Vietnamese community,” he explained. “I began to understand not only the contributions of immigrants, but also how immigrants struggle to navigate a pretty poorly designed immigration system.”
Religion is not a driver of Noorani’s work, he said, explaining that while his Pakistani immigrant parents raised him in a Muslim home, he has not remained active in the faith.
Yet since 2008, Noorani has led the Forum from a $2.5 million-a-year operation to a $6 million annual budget and has created multiple independent organizations led by religious or political conservatives and moderates who all favor the compassionate and just treatment of refugees. Those include Women of Welcome, the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force and the Council on National Security and Immigration.
“We have helped launch these efforts and continue to work alongside them as they make their own decisions,” he said.
The non-sectarian and non-partisan Forum also has forged partnerships with faith-based organizations such as World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table.
“We have spent time developing partnerships and relationships with conservatives and moderates, because it is they who can appeal to other conservatives and moderates,” Noorani said. “The idea is that I am the least qualified to help a conservative or an evangelical think about immigration reform.”
Noorani also has been busy writing, authoring the 2017 book There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration, and Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, due for release in March. He also pens a regular e-blast titled “Noorani’s Notes,” which summarizes the latest developments in national and global migration, and he hosts webinars and podcasts.
Leaders of organizations that have partnered with the Forum say Noorani’s energy and creativity have been a game changer in the struggle for immigration reform.
“He’s always been such a great champion for vulnerable people, and he always has this passion about giving back in a way that’s balanced and non-partisan,” said Bri Stensrud, director of Women of Welcome, an evangelical pro-immigration group launched jointly by World Relief and the National Immigration Forum.
As an evangelical Christian who formerly worked with Focus on the Family, Stensrud said she was relieved to encounter Noorani’s vision for a female-led immigration ministry that made room for a variety of perspectives — including her pro-life, biblical calling to serve immigrants.
“Everything is usually so wrapped up in partisan narratives in this immigration space, but Ali has done such a great job of holding that tension and culling out what is good from what is not good,” she said.
Blending the nonpartisan with compassion is attractive to conservatives often suspicious that participating in immigration reform means having to forego other values.
“It’s an effective onramp for conservatives and moderates to come into this space and it not be a bait-and-switch situation and not have to compromise beliefs,” Stensrud said. “Ali is continually creating these onramps for believers to live out their faith. The amazing work Ali has done is to bring people from the opposite sides of the political spectrum to find common ground.”
Much of Noorani’s gift for constructing unlikely alliances lies in his personality, said Matt Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief, a global Christian organization and one of nine American refugee resettlement agencies.
“He’s really good at being friends with people who are liberal and people who are conservative. And there aren’t many people in (Washington) D.C. who can do that,” Soerens said. “He also does a great job of recognizing the strengths in these people and bringing them to the table to forge consensus.”
That was the concept behind the Council on National Security and Immigration, a Forum project that unites current and former national security officials to promote immigration reform as a national security issue. Ditto for the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, which promotes compassionate immigration policy as a public safety issue.
Soerens said the Forum has become just that — a forum where people who may agree on little else can find common ground on immigration justice.
“The Forum under Ali’s leadership tries to help Americans recognize the value of immigration to our society by taking it out of strictly partisan spaces and showing how it affects the many aspects of our soceity,” he said.
Noorani, who has yet to announce his plans after leaving the Forum, said the work ahead remains in continually convincing those on the right to connect those dots, and to convince those on the left that the continuing growth of ethnic groups will not be enough to induce Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform.
“If the immigration movement believes demographics is destiny, we are never going to realize the changes we need in the immigration system.”
“Through the work of the Forum and through the relationships I have developed over the years, I saw how the country was really struggling with the question of immigrants and immigration, and it was not the slam dunk so many progressives thought it was going to be,” he said. “If the immigration movement believes demographics is destiny, we are never going to realize the changes we need in the immigration system.”
Meanwhile, voices on the far right are continuing to frame the issue as a liberal effort to undermine American security even as many of them were alarmed by the anti-refugee and anti-immigration actions taken by former President Donald Trump.
“A lot of conservatives really began to question what the Trump administration was doing on immigration” while progressives also saw they must act more decisively, he said. “So, instead of our network shrinking or collapsing during that time, across the board our relationships grew exponentially.”
Noorani said he is encouraged by the dedication and compassion such a wide swath of Americans have for immigrants. “I continue to find energy, and I remain optimistic, because of the energy and vitality we see across the country for this issue.”